Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories (P.S.) BY Lydia Peelle. Harper Perennial. Paperback, 208 pages. $13.

The cover of Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories (P.S.)

The eight stories in Lydia Peelle’s debut collection are remarkable for their clarity and precision. Set primarily in the dwindling forests and farmland surrounding Nashville, Tennessee, they concern the estrangement between modern life and nature, unsettling the reader’s hope for an easy reconciliation between the two.

The opening story, “Mule Killers,” involves the arrival of tractors at a family farm and the elimination of traditional animal labor. The tale is told in retrospect, when the narrator’s father is eighteen and still outgrowing his boyish love for Orphan Lad, a mule he rides to school bareback in the winter. Once there, “he’d jump down and slap the mule’s wide wonderful haunch, and the big animal would turn without hesitation and walk directly home to be harnessed and hitched for the day’s work.” The indignation that is done to Orphan Lad—he’s packed into a truck with scores of other mules, to be sold for dog meat or killed and heaved into a ditch—is echoed by the nonchalance with which the young man tries to abandon a girl he has impregnated, because he is in love with the local beauty. The story’s ending shows little indulgence for nostalgia and even less for caprice, a pattern that recurs in Peelle’s collection.

“The Still Point” presents a man in his early thirties trying to escape the memory of his twin brother’s death fifteen years before by selling junked antiques at a traveling fair, even as he knows that the pastures surrounding his childhood home have been sold to make way for housing developments. When he stops at a Native American burial site, he struggles “to feel some sense of the sacred, of the permanence,” but experiences only “the late blankness of an August afternoon, a plane droning overhead.” Elsewhere, an aging taxidermist gives up on hunting, because there’s no possibility of getting lost in the woods anymore (“Even if your GPS broke and your cell phone fell in the mud . . . you could just follow the sound of the highway”), and two young stable girls learn over the course of “the last summer, the last one before boys,” that they are neither invulnerable nor incapable of cruelty.

In the volume’s concluding story, the characters who care most about preserving the pristine mountains where they live are the ones who could be said to have the least claim to the place, as none of them were born there. They are all drifters who have made their way “south to find a better life.” South, in Peelle’s artful stories, is where each generation tries to forge anew its relationship to the landscape. Success or failure depends on the extent to which they acknowledge that their lives are “haunted . . . trapped by all the stories of the past.”